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Epilepsy and Language Development

Jan 15, 2022 I have always been fascinated with how the brain works and develops throughout pregnancy and early childhood years. Scientists and pediatricians have also been studying the effects of brain disease on speech and language development.

One disorder that has been looked at quite significantly is epilepsy. Throughout studies, it has been determined that epilepsy does affect speech and language, but the extent varies due to the type, severity and cause of epilepsy. 

How Does Epilepsy Affect Language?

When epilepsy develops early in childhood, the typical development of the brain is disrupted and out of the ordinary. These children will display difficulties in learning and retaining speech and language in the way that typical children are able to learn. 

This happens more often with partial epilepsy arising in the left hemisphere.The left hemisphere of the brain is responsible for language development. If any issues arise in these areas, we will typically see deficits in expressive (spoken language) and receptive language (what a child can understand when listening or reading).  In many of these cases, the language will be reduced in frequency and the child may seem more “quiet” than what is typical for their age. This disturbance can eventually extend to effects on reading and writing because they aren’t able to sound out words or read them in print. 

What is epilepsy?

Many forms of generalized epilepsy have nonspecific effects on a range of functions, including those involving language. But other forms of epilepsy produce definite patterns of language disturbance. One of the issues that can occur is called Aphasia.  Aphasia is an acquired disorder of language or symbolic processing. This means that a person who is diagnosed with Aphasia loses the ability to understand or express speech. There are many specific types of aphasia, defined according to the type of function that is lost. A person with a diagnosis of aphasia is assumed to have achieved normal language functioning before the onset of illness. Although Aphasia is typically seen in adults who have suffered strokes, it is also seen in children who have seizures. 

Some people with partial forms of epilepsy claim to have problems with comprehending language, but these symptoms nearly always are mislabeled. For example, children who are told that they can’t comprehend, might be mislabeled as attention deficit because it’s assumed they aren’t paying attention and that’s why they aren’t understanding. 

Reduced attention or memory impairment is also another issue that can arise from a diagnosis of epilepsy. So you can see how children can be misdiagnosed frequently if they have mild seizures! These characteristics can fit many different diagnoses and that’s why it’s important to talk to your doctor about any issues you are seeing. 

Signs of Mild Seizures

We know the tell-tale signs of a moderate or severe seizure because they typically accompany convulsions. However, there are mild seizures that don’t have obvious symptoms. These can include:

  1. Temporary confusion
  2. A staring spell
  3. Uncontrollable jerking movements of the arms and legs
  4. Loss of consciousness or awareness
  5. Cognitive or emotional symptoms, such as fear, anxiety or deja vu

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Doctor can classify epilepsy as focal or generalized depending on their symptoms and severity. Focal seizures result from abnormal electrical activity in one area of your brain. Focal seizures can occur with or without loss of consciousness:

  • Focal seizures with impaired awareness. These seizures involve a change or loss of consciousness or awareness. You may stare into space and not respond normally to your environment or perform repetitive movements, such as hand rubbing, chewing, swallowing or walking in circles.
  • Focal seizures without loss of consciousness. These seizures may alter emotions or change the way things look, smell, feel, taste or sound, but you don’t lose consciousness. These seizures may also result in the involuntary jerking of a body part, such as an arm or leg, and spontaneous sensory symptoms such as tingling, dizziness and flashing lights.

Symptoms of focal seizures may be confused with other neurological disorders, such as migraine, narcolepsy or mental illness.

Generalized seizures are seizures that appear to involve all areas of the brain. Different types of generalized seizures include:

  • Absence seizures. Absence seizures, previously known as petit mal seizures, often occur in children and are characterized by staring into space or by subtle body movements, such as eye blinking or lip smacking. These seizures may occur in clusters (several seizures in a short amount of time) and cause a brief loss of awareness.
  • Tonic seizures. Tonic seizures cause stiffening of your muscles. These seizures usually affect muscles in your back, arms and legs and may cause you to fall to the ground.
  • Atonic seizures. Atonic seizures, also known as drop seizures, cause a loss of muscle control, which may cause you to suddenly collapse or fall down.
  • Clonic seizures. Clonic seizures are associated with repeated or rhythmic, jerking muscle movements. These seizures usually affect the neck, face and arms.
  • Myoclonic seizures. Myoclonic seizures usually appear as sudden brief jerks or twitches of your arms and legs.
  • Tonic-clonic seizures. Tonic-clonic seizures, previously known as grand mal seizures, are the most dramatic type of epileptic seizure and can cause an abrupt loss of consciousness, body stiffening and shaking, and sometimes loss of bladder control or biting your tongue.

It’s important that if your child is exhibiting any symptoms mentioned above that they be evaluated by a neurologist to determine seizures are occuring. If diagnosed, seizures have been shown to be treated with medicine or diet modifications. 

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The author’s views are entirely his or her own and may not necessarily reflect the views of Blub Blub Inc. All content provided on this website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for independent professional medical judgement, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.

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